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Campaign Finance Reform

In accepting the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1908, this century's greatest populist warned: "How can the people hope to rule if they are not able to learn, until after the election, what the predatory interests are doing?" The man was, of course, William Jennings Bryan, and he offered a "complete and effective" solution to the financing of political campaigns: a ban on contributions from corporations, a cap of $10,000 on individual contributions, and public disclosure of all contributions prior to an election.

Current law falls well short of Mr. Bryan's prescription, and the issue still commands substantial populist support, not least among Ross Perot's followers. Yet financial abuses in political campaigns predate the Republic itself, at least by the yardstick of current standards. Had Common Cause, the clean campaign lobby, been around at the time, they surely would have admonished George Washington about his 1758 campaign for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. At an election day event, Washington served up 46 gallons of beer, 34 gallons of wine, 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, and two gallons of cider royal. Considering there were just 391 voters in his district, his expenditure per voter was at least comparable to Michael Huffington's nearly $30 million campaign for the Senate in 1994. Nor would Common Cause have been pleased with Abraham Lincoln's secret...

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